Everything I know about leadership I learned from a rabbit

big rabbit on snowMaybe not everything, but quite a bit.  One of my favorite novels of all time is Watership Down by Richard Adams first published in 1972.   For more pragmatic readers the fact that it is about rabbits is its first, second and third strike.  More’s the pity.  It is an adventure story and a helpful instruction on the nature of true leadership.

The hero and leader of this tale is Hazel.  He is portrayed as having a “shrewd and buoyant air”* but otherwise as unremarkable.  Among the characters of the book he is not the strongest, nor the smartest nor the the fastest, nor yet the one with the insights or the vision.  Unremarkable, yet he becomes a remarkable leader.

What makes him so?  I can think of five things.

 1.  He listens. He pays careful attention to the strongest, the smartest, the fastest and the ones with insight and vision.  And this not just because he knows he is supposed to.  He understands that he is not the best at any of the above and really wants the counsel of others.  He has the humility to know he does not have all the answers.  This is contrasted to the leader of his home warren who dismisses him simply because he is unremarkable.  That leader pays for his arrogance with his life.

2.  He lets others excel in their strengths.  He allows the strongest, the smartest, and the others, to use their strengths. He is not threatened by them. He does not have the need to get all the credit for the good ideas or the success of a plan.  He also makes space for the physically weaker rabbits to contribute uniquely to the team.  Fiver, another character in the book, will never be any good in a fight, but he is the visionary without whom the enterprise would never be successful – or even attempted.

3.  He will make a decision.  He is a listener, a humble one, but he is also prepared to make a choice when others are confused, frightened, paralyzed or just pig-headed.  He makes decisions sometimes contrary to the pressure of the strongest and thus keeps them from degenerating into mere bullies.  And he takes responsibility for his decisions, not all of which are excellent.

4.  He shows confidence. He manages his own doubts and fears and thus encourages others.  There is one chapter in which he has made an unpopular decision about the route that they take.  When he struggles internally with the wisdom of that choice he nonetheless keeps the focus by reassuring others.  This is confidence, not bravado.  He is not ignoring his own doubts.  He is also not letting them overtake him.

5.  He clearly cares about his companions.  He does not always like them, but he understands each member’s value and strengths.  In short, he knows the ones he leads and is known by them.  This brings a trust and cohesiveness that is otherwise impossible.  And that breeds success.

I recommend the book not only for the insights into the nature of leadership but also for the story itself.  (As an aside you can cheerfully skip the 1978 animated film based on the novel – a pale reflection of the real thing.)

*Richard Adams, Watership Down, (Penguin Books, 1974) p. 16

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